NL Central Preview
Given that a lot of readers of these pieces aren’t just baseball fans, but are also fond of sports betting, as the 2014 preview series comes to a close, this is the perfect venue to tell you a story about the intersection of those two topics. As a result of writing my book, I met a lot of people I would have never met otherwise; here is a recounting of one of those experiences. It’s a column that you’ll never read about on mlb.com, but probably should.
When I first became aware of baseball as a kid, a lot Major League teams were essentially owned and operated as family trusts. Names like Wrigley, Yawkey, O’Malley, Carpenter, and Busch were synonymous with the teams they owned but these days ownership groups are comprised of many different shareholders and unlike the collective buffoonery periodically exhibited by the owners 40 years ago (as entertainingly recounted in Lords of the Realm) today’s owners are, first and foremost, savvy businessmen.
Shortly after my book came out, one of those owners contacted me and we began an extended string of communications. We hit it off on a number of topics ranging beyond baseball, and a couple of months later he invited me to spend a few days golfing at a private club on the other side of the country – even going so far as to arrange transportation for me. During my three days there we were joined by nearly a dozen of his friends, including another Major League owner. Sitting on an oversized veranda overlooking water, and sharing gin and tonics late into the night while listening to a couple of MLB owners discuss business and rib each other was priceless, of course, and there were certainly some quotes that were not meant to leave the table. But there was one discussion that hit so perfectly on the intersection of the topics I’ve been writing about for nearly three years, that I think you’ll enjoy a recounting of it here.
“Joe,” one of the owners said to me when the topic of my book came up, “MLB has a problem but it’s masked by some good fortune. However, it’s non-recurring good fortune and it’s going to come back to hurt us some day, sooner than you’d think.”
There was some back and forth, but at this point, I’m just going to relay his side of the conversation as if he were giving a lecture.
“Specifically, we have a demographic problem and it became apparent a few years ago. You see, when the Expos moved to Washington there was a period of time during which they shared RFK Stadium with the D.C. United (of the MLS). It turns out that both the Nationals and the United drew roughly the same amount of fans, something in the mid-20,000s a game. However, the makeup of the fan base was completely different. The median age of a Nationals fan was in the upper 30s but in the low 20s for the United.”
“There’s not a business in the world that would rather have the Nationals customer base than the United’s. And that’s the demographic problem we face as an industry.”
He then went on to cite a statistic, along with the time series trend, of the number of kids playing youth soccer in America compared to Little League baseball. (Depressingly, for those of us whose childhood springs/summers revolved around Little League, the soccer lead is more easily expressed as a factor, rather than a percentage.)
“This looming demographic problem,” he continued, “is masked by the massive amount of television revenue, especially at the regional level, that is giving our industry fantastic top-line growth. The problem is, it’s not a sustainable growth rate; it’s a one-time reset that’s going to plateau. The industry of baseball is a most fortunate beneficiary of the invention of the DVR, because we provide cable networks with 162 days of 4-hour long, DVR-proof programming. There’s not another product that can provide that type of content and we’re being rewarded with huge bumps in our local renewal contracts. The problem is that some within the game think this is a growth rate in revenue that can be modeled going forward. What they can’t see is that it’s a one-time bump that’s going to plateau over time.”
He summed it up in one sentence that would be used as the signature quote in a Harvard Business School case study. “We’re like a country club that doesn’t have enough new candidates to take the place of the original members when they all get old at once.”
With the problem stated, he then advanced his solution – and you won’t believe it. I’m not going to comment at the end of his quote, as I think it’s simply worth considering the thoughts of a man who is so clearly a thoughtful, intelligent business man with a string of successful ventures in his past. Remember, however, that this is an owner of an MLB franchise who sits in meetings with Bud Selig.
“We’re not going to change this demographic problem by trying to get kids to play baseball. That boat’s sailed. Instead of trying to change their behavior, we need to adjust to it. Look at what kids love these days: video games, analytics, poker playing, fantasy sports, etc. Competitive, short-duration activities that revolve around using your mind and provide instant gratification.”
Having laid all this out, he continued as if the following were the most natural conclusion in the world: “If baseball wants to attract young people to the game, it needs to embrace sports betting.”
St. Louis Cardinals
It might not have the spectacular upside that Clayton Kershaw gives the Dodgers or Stephen Strasburg gives the Nationals, but the Cardinals starting rotation is simply the envy of baseball. The entire starting rotation is home grown, having never pitched an inning in the majors for another team. (Although Adam Wainwright did come over as a minor league prospect in a 2003 trade with the Braves for J.D. Drew.) Simply stated, when you’re fifth starter is either Joe Kelly (3.08 ERA in 31 career starts) or Jamie Garcia (3.45 ERA in 90 career starts) you probably have the best rotation in the league top-to-bottom. It projects to be better than last year’s version which was second in the majors in ERA.
The Cardinals will benefit from that strength because the team that scored 783 runs last year – by far the most in the National League – won’t be nearly as prolific this year. Thanks to a .313 batting average with runners on base (and .330 with runners in scoring position) compared with a 236 average with the bases empty, St. Louis benefitted from cluster luck on offense to the tune of an astounding 71 runs. Their run scoring total was even more amazing when you consider they had three replacement-level black holes in Pete Kozma, Daniel Descalso, and former World Series hero David Freese who made 1,300 plate appearances in aggregate during 2013. Super prospect Kolten Wong and free-agent signee Jhonny Peralta will take a lot of those at bats in 2014 and improve on last year’s production. Peter Bourjos will struggle to replace Carlos Beltran’s offensive production, but he’ll make up for a lot of those lost runs with a superior glove in the field.
Anytime a team is projected to score at least 100 runs less than they scored the year before would generally be a nice candidate for an under play. But the Cardinals are going to be a run suppression machine this year and while I think their battle with Cincinnati is going to be tighter than expected, I’m passing on the posted under play at 91 ½ wins.
89-73 – First in NL Central
672 Runs Scored 603 Runs Allowed
As fun an activity and intellectually stimulating as poker is, the worst part about dwelling among those in the poker sub-culture is . . . say it with me, poker players . . . ‘bad beat’ stories. It’s not that the stories aren’t accurate or aren’t really bad beats, it’s the people that tell them never tell you about the wins that they didn’t deserve. To atone for those sins, I present to you the season results of the 2013 Cincinnati Reds.
As regular readers know, I released 10 total wins over/under picks last year and well before the season ended it was clear there were 6 easy winners, 3 sure losers, and the Padres trending towards a win. Sure enough, as September wound down, the Padres clinched the seventh win with a few games to play. However, the Reds, on a pace to win 94 games or more all of the summer, dropped their last six games of the year and finished with 90 wins, one-half game under their closing market, making me 8-2 on the year. That was absolutely the opposite of a ‘bad beat’; it was an undeserved win.
One of the reasons I got the Reds outlook so wrong last year was a projection that their defense would be leaky, at best. It turns out Cincinnati’s defense was the best in baseball. The primary reason you’ll see me projecting more wins for the Reds than others in 2014, is that there’s no reason their defensive prowess should drop-off significantly in 2014. Their weakest fielder, Shin-Soo Choo departed via free-agency and he’s replaced by the fastest man in baseball, Billy Hamilton. The rest of the unit returns this year and while offensively they will surely miss Choo’s on-base prowess (.423 OBP) any sort of bounce back from Ryan Ludwick and Joey Votto who actually had a relatively down year power-wise, along with the speed dimension which Hamilton brings to the table, should keep the Reds right about where they were last year scoring runs.
In the mid-2000s it was said the Phillies would never have an effective pitching staff because of the home ball park they played in and that turned out to be a false narrative. The same thing was said about the Reds a few years ago and last year they disproved that as well by stocking their rotation with five sub-3.50 ERA starters. They’re all back this year, although Mat Latos will start the year on the disabled list. Aroldis Chapman’s frightening and headline-grabbing face injury is a bit more problematic for a bullpen with three major arms on the DL as the season starts, but overall there is no reason the Reds won’t be just as good as they were all season long last year.
For a while it looked like I might only be releasing four “over” calls this year, but with the Reds market having settled in at 84 games, this becomes the an official “over” play, joining the Mariners, Rockies, and Nationals. (The fifth one, which was never in doubt, is still to come below.)
88-74 – Second in NL Central
674 Runs Scored 616 Runs Allowed
Milwaukee only won 74 games last year, but stripping out Pythag and cluster luck they were really an 80-win team, and that was without Ryan Bruan for a third of the season. They’ll be roughly the same team this year with a possibly improved starting rotation thanks to Matt Garza’s arrival, but the offense still has a huge hole at first base with Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds trying to improve last year’s awful production. The loss of Norichika Aoki and his on-base skills probably removes the possibility of a playoff run, given the division they’re in.
The total wins market of 80 is fair.
80-82 – Third in NL Central
663 Runs Scored 669 Runs Allowed
On September 9 last year, with 19 games left in the season, the Pirates won their 82nd game of the year, emphatically bringing to an end their ignominious streak of 20 consecutive years of under .500 results. Pittsburgh, of course, didn’t stop there, winning a total of 94 games, defeating the Reds in the Wild Card game, and pushing the Cardinals to a full five game NLDS before finally succumbing.
The Pirates had been steadily improving for four years, especially in run suppression, culminating in a National League leading 577 runs allowed last year. How much improvement did that represent? Just three seasons earlier, in 2010, the Pirates allowed a major league worst 866 runs. A 289 runs-allowed decrease (33% improvement) in just three years is astounding and a credit to the roster construction of the front office. The Pirates transformed themselves into a strikeout-heavy, groundball-inducing staff (only team in 2013 to have a groundball percentage over 50%, and at 52.5% it easily outdistanced the second-highest St. Louis staff at 48.5%) backed by excellent defense. Last year they also had a bullpen that allowed earned runs at a 2.89 ERA clip.
I freely admit, therefore, that the projection of 78 wins at the bottom of this capsule seems low and wouldn’t seem to pass the smell test. Let’s see how I get there, so the post-mortem will be easy when it looks so wrong in September.
- The bullpen ERA is simply unsustainable. Even allowing for a regression to their mean as opposed to a regression to the (league) mean, the Pirates should allow an extra half-run every nine innings. Doesn’t mean they will, but it has to be modeled that way. That’s an extra 30 runs or drop of 3 wins.
- Pitt had the third most “clutch” defense last year. The Pirates actually played better defense in small-sample, high-leverage situations with relievers pitching than they did when starters were on the mound. The overall level of defense may be sustainable but the distribution is not. Model 15 more runs at a cost of 1.5 wins.
- The loss of AJ Burnett, who tossed 191 innings of 3.30 ERA ball last year, is an enormous hole to fill. Jeff Locke had a 3.52 ERA in 165 innings and he’s starting the season in the minors. Locke, who possesses mid-4.00 ERA stuff as opposed to his mid-3.00 results wasn’t going to repeat that performance but neither will his replacements. That means the Pirates start the year with only one pitcher who threw more than 120 innings for them last year. A full season of future star Gerrit Cole will help but it’s only 11 more starts year-over-year and the Pirates will have a lot of drop-off making up another 50 or so starts. Cost: 45 runs and 4.5 wins.
- Projected offense regression of 22 runs or 2 wins.
- The Pirates had 6 wins of Pythag luck in 2013.
That’s a 17 win drop-off and it gets you to 77 wins. With a total wins market of 84 ½, this becomes an emphatic “under” play – even if my head doesn’t like it one bit.
77-85 – Fourth in NL Central
633 Runs Scored 669 Runs Allowed
Here are some ingredients needed to be a no-brainer “over” call. We’ll compare them to the Cubs as we go along.
Repeated failures lead to diminished expectations. Avg. 66 wins last three seasons, worst
in NL. NL’s lowest win market in '14
Negative cluster luck obscuring actual skill level. 4 wins of negative cluster luck in ’13
Negative Pythag luck on top of cluster luck 5 wins of negative pythag luck in ’13
Poor bullpen performance; easiest path to mean 4.04 ERA in 2013, 3rd worst in NL.
A player with 600 ABs and negative WAR, Two players with negative offensive
which rarely repeats. WAR totaling 1,260 ABs.
There’s a lot that can go wrong for the Cubs this year. Their pitching staff isn’t very good outside of Jeff Samardzija, Jose Veras is the closer, and the defense is pretty bad. But I guarantee Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney will provide more than -2 WAR worth of offense because they are either far better than that, or if they aren’t they will be replaced during the year by players who are merely 0 WAR. Plus, I’m very excited about Mike Olt at 3B (a true steal for the half-season sale of Matt Garza to Texas last year) and a possible high-ceiling breakout from Anthony Rizzo at 1B.
Sure, I suppose the pitching could be so bad, there could be one more year of full-season tanking and a selling of any asset at the trading deadline to collect more prospects, but there are also so many ways the Cubs could be bad and still cover the over 68 wins market. Honestly, this might be my favorite “over” call on the board.
76-86 – Fifth in NL Central
630 Runs Scored 674 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) publication currently available wherever books are sold. Here are three on-line booksellers you can currently choose from:
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